M. W. Bassford

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Mary's Testimony

Monday, January 20, 2020

In Luke 1:1-4, Luke claims to be engaged in the practice of inspired history.  He hasn’t accumulated his knowledge of Jesus via direct download from the Holy Spirit, nor is he an eyewitness to the events of the gospels.  Instead, he has consulted those who were eyewitnesses and pieced their stories together into his narrative.

Luke most likely carried out his investigative work between 57 and 59 AD.  So far as we can tell, he was neither a Jew nor a native of Palestine.  Instead, he appears to have joined Paul when the apostle passed through Troas toward the beginning of the second missionary journey (note the shift between “they” and “we” in Acts 16:8-10), stayed in Philippi when Paul left (“they” again in Acts 16:40), left Philippi with him toward the end of the third missionary journey (“we” in Acts 20:6), and remained with him through the end of the book. 

Unless Luke had other travels we don’t know about, then, the only significant chunk of time he spent in Palestine was when Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea during those years in Acts 24.  If he had circulated through the Galilean and Judean churches at that time, he would have had no trouble finding disciples who remembered the momentous events of Jesus’ ministry, 30 years before.

Scholars, most notably Richard Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, have argued that Luke cited his sources by naming them in his narrative.  This explains, for instance, why we know the identity of one of the disciples whom Jesus met on the road to Emmaus (Cleopas) and not the other.  Cleopas was the disciple whom Luke interviewed.  Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7 is probably another source.

However, this pattern breaks down during the birth and childhood narratives of Luke 1 and 2.  All the named characters are fairly major (and so would be named whether witnesses or not), and most of them (Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna) are surely dead by the time of Luke’s inquiries.  Where, then, is Luke getting his information?

Our best clue appears in Luke 2:19 and Luke 2:51.  Even though there is no particular narrative reason for Luke to do so, he pauses twice to note that Mary, Jesus’ mother, treasured up these events in her heart.  Of all the characters in the story, Mary is the most plausible (and sometimes the only possible) eyewitness.  If, as is commonly believed, she was a teenager when Jesus was born, she would have been in her seventies during Paul’s Caesarea imprisonment—a long life for someone in that time, but certainly not impossibly so.  

Indeed, if Mary was still available at the time of his search, Luke would have sought her out above almost all other eyewitnesses—precisely because her testimony was unique.  If Mary is Luke’s source in Luke 1-2, his statement that she stored these things up in her heart shifts from being irrelevant to being vitally important.  Like an ancient veteran who still remembers battles from World War II, Mary would have remembered the events surrounding her Son’s birth all her life, and she would have been happy to share her testimony with the Gentile historian. 

Skeptics like to dismiss the early events of Luke as a pastiche of myth.  However, we have good reason to believe otherwise.  Luke’s words imply that rather than being sourceless speculation, his account comes from the best source of all—the young virgin who spent nine months carrying the Son of God under her heart.

Grace and the Self-Defense Debate

Friday, January 17, 2020

A few weeks ago, in the wake of the West Freeway shooting, I put up a blog post that argued that Christians have the right to defend themselves from murderous criminals.  To my complete lack of surprise, this proved controversial.  Everybody kept their comments civil, so I wasn’t bothered by that (though I did, as per my usual practice, refuse invitations to engage in prolonged exchanges). 

I was more concerned, though, by the brethren who expressed their viewpoint so strongly that they revealed incomprehension of why anybody else might believe differently.  I think this is a problematic way to handle a difficult subject.

There certainly are things in Scripture that are easy to understand.  I can start with a dozen different passages and end up proving the necessity of baptism for forgiveness of sins, and anybody who disagrees inevitably finds themselves in the position of explaining away the Bible rather than explaining the Bible. 

However, the legitimacy of self-defense isn’t like that.  At first, the application of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:39 appears straightforward, but I found that the more I studied, the less straightforward the issue became.  The very thrust of Jesus’ ministry appeared to limit the scope of His words.

Certainly, historical views of the interaction between Christianity and violence are all over the map.  Some of the Ante-Nicene Fathers argued that it was wrong even for Christians to hold government office or serve in the military, while Augustine formulated a politico-religious doctrine for justifying war. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, when brethren today find themselves disagreeing.  Often, this disagreement is based as much on moral intuition as on Scriptural reasoning.  Some brethren find the thought of a Christian preparing to kill someone else (even to defend the lives of others) repugnant, while others find the thought of passively watching the slaughter of innocents to be equally repugnant.

Frankly, both perspectives make a great deal of sense to me.  My own convictions (which are still evolving) have ranged from my current position to out-and-out pacifism.  Additionally, I think the whole debate reveals the power of sin in others to rob us of good choices.  In a world that contains church shooters, we are compelled to take one troubling position or the other, but it would be much better to live in a world without church shooters.

These are complicated matters, and for as long as the world continues, I don’t expect God’s people to be able to come to a consensus.  There are many other issues like this.  Therefore, we must learn to judge for ourselves while respecting the legitimacy of the views of those who judge differently.  It is not unthinkable for a Christian to be opposed to all violence, nor is it unthinkable for a Christian to resolve to defend innocents from mortal danger.  The better we learn to understand and honor the views of our brethren, the more useful and peaceful our lives will be.

Mary, Martha, and Jesus

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

One night last year, Lauren and I were driving home from a gospel meeting, and she asked me, “Am I allowed to request sermon topics too?”  As all husbands know, there is only one possible answer to that question, and so here I am this morning, preaching a sermon on two of the most famous sisters in the Bible, Mary and Martha.

I think this is worth our time for two reasons.  First, as we learned last week, our theme for the year is “Living for Jesus”, so it’s appropriate to consider the way two women lived for Jesus 2000 years ago. 

Second, I think that Martha is in some need of character rehabilitation.  She tends to get a bad rap from Bible teachers.  There’s even a book out there called Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World.  However, when we look at what the Scriptures actually reveal about her and her sister, a different picture emerges.  Let’s turn our attention, then, to the interaction among Mary, Martha, and Jesus.

There are three stories in the New Testament about these two women, and the first of these is about MARTHA’S COMPLAINT.  Let’s read it, in Luke 10:38-42.  This is certainly the story that people think of first when they think about Mary and Martha.  In fact, for many brethren, it’s the only story they think of. 

The first thing this story shows us is that Mary is kind of an odd duck.  Today, we think nothing of a woman sitting and listening to a Bible teacher, but 2000 years ago, that simply was not done.  By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary is not only declaring herself His disciple.  She’s halfway to declaring herself to be a man. 

The lesson here, I think, is that it’s OK to be a weird disciple of Jesus.  Some people have an easy time fitting into the conventions of society, and they can be wonderful Christians.  Others very much march to the beat of their own drummer, and they can be wonderful Christians too!  Being godly is a whole lot more important than being conventional.

Second, notice that Jesus rebukes Martha not for serving, but for criticizing Mary.  When Martha is bustling around serving while Mary listens, Jesus is perfectly fine with that.  It’s only when Martha complains that Jesus defends Mary. 

In life, some people are Marys.  They’re not so great at adulting, but they’ll sit and listen to Jesus all day long.  Others are Marthas.  They’re the ones who make sure that all the Marys are fed, clothed, and pointed in the right direction. 

It’s OK to be a Mary.  The church needs Marys.  However, the church needs Marthas too, and just like Martha doesn’t get to insist that Mary needs to become like her, neither should we insist that Martha needs to become like Mary!

The second of our three Mary-and-Martha stories is THE RESURRECTION OF LAZARUS.  It’s funny that we associate this story with Lazarus, but from beginning to end of it, he doesn’t say a word.  It’s Mary and Martha who do the bulk of the talking.  Let’s read about their part of the story in John 11:17-35. 

The first thing I see here is that in life, everybody gets their chance to shine.  In this story, the one who impresses is not Mary.  When Jesus arrives, she doesn’t go to greet Him, which is rude.  When Martha summons her to Jesus, she storms out of the house, goes to Jesus, accuses Him of being responsible for her brother’s death, and then collapses in hysterics at His feet.  Everything she does radiates mad and upset.

Not so with Martha.  Despite her reputation as the one who cares more about housekeeping than God, she is the one who actually has a meaningful conversation with Jesus.  In v. 21-22, even though she too holds Jesus responsible for Lazarus’ death, she expresses her conviction that He can make it right.  Jesus tells her and not Mary that He is the resurrection and the life.  She, not Mary, triumphantly concludes the conversation by expressing her faith in Jesus’ divinity and power.  I daresay that if we didn’t have the book of Luke, our narrative about Mary and Martha would be very different.

Second, though, let’s pay attention to the way that Jesus deals with Mary’s emotional outburst.  He’s not angry or condemnatory.  He’s compassionate.  Even though He knows what is going to happen in five minutes, when she weeps, He weeps along with her.

From this, we see once again that we don’t have to hide from God.  Sometimes, we feel like we have to put on our church faces when we pray, and that’s exactly the opposite of the truth.  If there is anybody we can be shockingly honest with, it’s God!  He’s big enough to handle our anger, our upset, our rage.  The problems come when we think we have to hide those things from Him (as if we could!) and end up turning from Him.

Our third story is the story of JESUS’ ANOINTING FOR BURIAL.  Let’s look it, in John 12:1-8.  By now, we should know what to expect.  Martha is doing Martha things, and Mary is doing Mary things. 

If, after our visit to Luke 10, we still had any doubt about whether Jesus was OK with Martha serving, this should dispel it.  She’s not plopped down in the floor next to Mary.  She’s bustling around making sure everything is in order, just like she was before. 

That’s perfectly fine.  Indeed, it’s always right for a disciple to tend to the needs of others, whether they’re male or female.  In the very next chapter, Jesus Himself is going to perform a humble act of service to teach His disciples a lesson.  In the Lord’s body, the people who paint the auditorium are just as important as the people who preach sermons in it, and we must never forget that.

Also, notice Jesus once again sticking up for Mary.  Once again, this is a strange thing she has done.  The only thing like it that we see in the gospels is the sinful woman in Luke 7 wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair as a sign of her repentance. 

This is also a very expensive thing for Mary to do.  In our terms, this is about a $50,000 perfume job!  However, whether Mary knows it or not, this is also the right thing for her to do.  She comes nearer to the meaning of the moment than any of Jesus’ other disciples do. 

As a result, when Judas condemns her, Jesus defends her.  In fact, He defends her so strongly that Judas gets offended at Jesus’ rebuke and ends up betraying Him to the chief priests.  I think Martha’s motives were a lot better than Judas’s, who only wanted his cut of the 300 denarii, but Jesus is willing to protect Mary from Marthas and Judases alike.

I think that all of us find ourselves rolling our eyes at our brethren occasionally, but we must remember that the quirkiest Christian in the assembly is someone whom Jesus loves and values.  We all take some bearing with, and some of us take a lot of bearing with!  However, God put us all here for a reason, and just like Mary did, each of us has something unique to offer.   

The Faith of Zechariah

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

One of the most hopeful things about the Bible is that it chronicles the flaws not only of the wicked, but of the righteous too.  Nearly every Biblical character is depicted as falling short in some way, but despite their failures, they pick themselves up, press on, and eventually receive God’s approval.

We see this pattern in the life of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.  He is undoubtedly a good man.  Indeed, Luke 1:6 describes both him and his wife as “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” 

However, when this good man encounters the angel Gabriel as he serves in the temple, the limitations of his faith become apparent.  Gabriel tells him that he will have a son, but decades of experience have shown him that he and his once-barren, now-old wife are incapable of having children.  He chooses to believe his experience rather than God’s word, and he is stricken with muteness because of it.

Despite his unbelief, after his return from temple service, his wife conceives, and in due time, his miracle son is born.  Then, the Bible story gets weird.  Elizabeth and the family get into an argument over whether the child is going to be named “Zechariah” (after Daddy) or “John” (as Gabriel had said).  She insists on “John”, and the still-mute Zechariah confirms her decision in writing.  At this point, his speech impediment is removed, and he begins to glorify God.

This story doesn’t make much sense to people from our society, so we have to do our best to read it through first-century eyes.  Throughout the Bible, it’s obvious that children, especially sons, are extremely important—even more so than in our time.  Not only did sons provide for their parents in old age, they also—to a people with an uncertain grasp of the afterlife—offered a kind of immortality.  As long as your sons continued, you did too.

This is why the relatives want to name the baby “Zechariah”.  Against all the odds, this faithful, elderly priest is going to have a future!  However, Zechariah knows that his son’s life won’t be about him.  It will be about God.  His course will be so different that only the name given by God, a name that no one in his family ever has worn, would be appropriate.  In affirming God’s choice, Zechariah also affirms that John’s life will be about the hope of Israel, not the hope of Zechariah.

Zechariah’s spiritual struggles resonate with even the best of us.  We too know how hard it is to trust God’s word instead of our experiences.  We know what it’s like when God’s goals for our lives collide with our own.

Faith doesn’t necessarily mean that we get everything right in the moment.  Like Zechariah, we can get ambushed by a spiritually crucial decision we didn’t see coming.  Faith does mean, though, that if we get off track and suffer the consequences, we don’t give up.  We fight through the hard times, we try to figure out where God wants us to go, and we go there.  As Zechariah learned, we too will learn that regardless of what has come before, if we will seek the Lord, we are sure to find Him.

"Living for Jesus" (Prayer Service, 1-12-20)

Friday, January 10, 2020

We'll be meeting at the Jackson Heights building at 3 PM this Sunday to ask the Lord's blessing on the new year.  Hope you can join us!

  1. By Abiding in the Word (John 8:31-32)
    Hymn:  How Firm a Foundation (248)
    Prayer:  for zeal for the Scriptures
  2. By Keeping His Commandments (John 14:15)
    Hymn:  Trust and Obey (714)
    Prayer:  for more godliness
  3. By Loving One Another (John 13:34-35)
    Hymn:  Blest Be the Tie (76)
    Prayer:  for increased love for each other
  4. By Teaching Others (Matthew 28:18-20)
    Hymn:  Will You Not Tell It Today? (783)
    Prayer:  for boldness in proclaiming Jesus
  5. By Supporting Others’ Work (Matthew 9:35-38)
    Hymn:  Far and Near (139)
    Prayer:  for foreign evangelists and our willingness to help them
  6. By Becoming Like Him (Philippians 2:5-8)
    Hymn:  O to Be Like Thee (499)
    Prayer:  for greater Christlikeness
  7. Invitation
    Invitation Hymn:  Living for Jesus (402, vs. 1-4, then chorus)
    Lord’s Supper
    Closing Prayer

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